San Francisco's Top Five Coffee Shops

Categories: Top Five

cappuccino 550.jpg
Photos by W. Blake Gray
​Coffee is such a personal thing. If I like cappuccino, you like drip coffee black, and Bill Cosby likes a triple-tall nonfat extrahot no-foam latte (apparently true), we're not going to agree on what the best coffee shop is.

But I'm the guy with the pen keyboard soapbox. So before I tell you what I think are San Francisco's Top Five Coffee Shops, I'd better tell you my criteria.

Foremost is coffee quality. But with coffee shops, atmosphere matters; it won't excuse bad coffee, but it elevates a good cup. I'm not counting food items' quality much toward the Top Five (sorry, farm:table), but not having any food is a negative.

Most important: What kind of coffee? I drink drip and French press in restaurants and at home, but almost never in coffee shops (sorry, Philz). If I go to a specialist it's for espresso drinks, which I can't do well at home, or iced coffee. Cappuccino is my favorite, and don't pester me that Italians would call me a girlyman for drinking it in the afternoon, because this is San Francisco, and girlymen are cool.

Also, what kind of atmosphere? Many folks like to go to a coffee shop, plug in headphones, and stare at their laptops. But to me, good atmosphere is friendlier than that (sorry, the Summit).

One last thing before I launch into the list (and return to SFoodie's preferred royal "we"). The most important factor in a good coffee shop is location. In a city with more than 200 coffee shops, a good one next to your office is better than a great one across town. I have favorites in practically every neighborhood, and just because I like these five best doesn't mean I don't patronize plenty of others -- indeed, some more than these.

But that said, these five are worth a special visit. Enough talk -- let's have some coffee.

ritual interior350.jpg
5. Ritual Coffee Roasters

Ritual has a lot going on for the coffee lover.

Ritual is one of the leaders in single-finca bean sourcing. If you love terroir in wine, it's great to taste its equivalent in coffees produced by a single farmer from a single plot of land. Ritual's excellent website even shows you pictures of the farmers.

We like that you can get espresso drinks or single-cup drip made from Ritual's regular blended beans, which are already quite good, or from a variety of other specifically sourced beans.

The atmosphere is a decent mix of locked-in computer users in the back, while sofas in the front occasionally draw people who don't recoil from opening salvos about the weather. The baked goods are locally sourced and usually include a few interesting things.

If we ding Ritual for anything, it's that the beans are among the priciest in town, and the shop does sometimes host a little more cooler-than-thou attitude than we like. But to be fair, unless thou art pretty darn cool, it's accurate.

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40 comments
Jay See
Jay See

Sry... I try to like 4 barrel but ... Ugh .... Sight glass and blue bottle my number ones!

SChmordan River
SChmordan River

"This is San Francisco, and girlymen are cool." Haha! Leif Rob

Barbara Mcwilliams
Barbara Mcwilliams

Cafe Trieste is good but Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store is better.

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Guest
Guest

Sorry... been drinking coffee for 20 years now (Man, am I getting old!) Philz simply destroys the competition including the pretenders on this list!

Cycleguide
Cycleguide

I have to agree. This is San Francisco. Why do we keep hearing about the same old tired names. There are so many super cool kitchy coffee cafes around the city and all we hear about is Blue Bottle, Ritual, and Four Barrel. Tired. Tired. Tired. Get out and experience some of the real coffee houses rather than the same pretentious roasters. They are all good but not over the top great. There are truly amazing cafes in the city that are our little hidden gems. These are not.

Eatmorebrusselsprouts
Eatmorebrusselsprouts

Ritual does have some nice beans. And it isn't Starbucks. Two things going for it! (OK, so I love SB, too.)

swag
swag

An article only 6 years too late...

jojo
jojo

how about this? if you like a place and it tastes good to you, patronize it! done deal. no need to convince others of your impeccable taste. it's clear from the comments here and the general sentiment of this perpetually silly coffee debate that humans--read: slightly spoiled SF caffeinistas--with our very diverse sets of sensory desires, will never agree on what makes a good cup of coffee. that said, i've had yum cups at most of these places. in my mind, it's all about the beans. and contrary to what some speculate here, philz has some pretty good beans. like the anesthesia, for instance. same can be said for blue bottle, four barrel, et al. ritual, on the other hand, seems like it's artificially flavored, their taste descriptions always make me giggle (dragonfruit? really?), and i am morally offended by their prices. but from what i know, caffe trieste is truly the dark coffee/espresso purist's spot of choice. as for 4 barrel, i am bothered they don't have honey. look, i get it, but coffee snobbery should not preclude me from making my coffee so sweet it would shock a diabetic. and i am trying to avoid becoming a type-II insulin shooter, so honey helps. :)

andrea
andrea

Ok umm, the author already said that it was his opinion and that he graded the places on cappuccinos and atmoshpere, so why is everyone trying to tell him how he should feel about coffee? And for the record I like cafe teieste, they know how to make a damn good cappuccino.

sc
sc

Seriously, Caffe Trieste? I've never had good coffee there. Philz wouldn't make my list either. Both of their coffees tastes of charcoal tea and the spaces are filthy.

andyosaurus
andyosaurus

Another vote for Philz! Philz isn't about the top quality beans and scientific brewing, it's about the end product (best with cream and sugar) and the nice people, which, if you are a purist, may not be for you.

Jaq A
Jaq A

It's been years but I still don't get how people can like Blue Bottle. It's just a notch above Starbucks for me, and that's not saying much, since I hate Starbucks. 

Ritual Roasters is still the best for me and, although Caffe Trieste is basically my go-to place especially for meetings, I was still surprised to find it in this list.

westside
westside

I just love Four Barrel. I had the best coffee there this morning and I thought the barista's were actually disturbingly friendly. I do have to respectfully disagree with the inclusion of Trieste though.

Lance Walker
Lance Walker

Agreed on 4 out of 5 of these picks and have frequented them each quite a bit.  Cafe Trieste on the other hand I've got to say "NO" to it being included in the top 5.  Yes it has history, and old school atmosphere, and the neighborhood and location certainly do not hurt it, but if the main criteria is to be coffee quality (which I agree that it should) then it does not succeed. On a recent evening visit the guy making my latte had about as much experience as someone at 7-11 and the coffee was far from top notch.  Who would I pick for the 5th spot on my own top five?  That's a though call as I can think of at least three recent candidates for the position:

Haus: Very Very good espresso drinks made here with a nice atmosphere and an excellent often sunny and warm [Mission] back patio to relax on.

Sightglass:  They've crafted a very cool large space here and while they do not currently source their own beans out, they do a very solid job of roasting top tier beans in-house (and how can you not with such a drool-worthy old-school roaster that is none other than a 1961 mint condition German Probat?

Ma'velous:  I've only recently gotten around to trying it and have since been back a few times.  The owner clearly has a genuine love of coffee and all things of quality that go with great coffee.  I've had great pour-overs and espresso's and will be trying some of his other highest grade brew methods as well such as an outstanding looking Japanese cold brewer, a pristine triple halogen syphon brewing setup and other methods.  The fantastic custom built, transparent La' Mazzorca is not to be missed and it pulls some wonderful shots with the owner at the helm.  I also like the fact that he imports freshly roasted out-of-state legends such as Intelligencia and Stumptown which are fairly difficult to obtain elsewhere around town (both on daily coffee/espresso options as well as whole beans for sale).

The third wave is a very interesting ride so far and I expect to see even more great things to come around the next corner.  Ultimately good coffee is going to be a subjective thing though and my opinion is but one.  The important thing is that if you enjoy the places you are consuming your coffee in and the coffee that they serve then that is what really matters in the end of it all.

My 2 Cents for Coffee
My 2 Cents for Coffee

This should have been entitled "Places The Author Likes to Get Cappuccino and Hang Out" not Top Five Coffee Shops. Not putting Philz in because they don't do espresso disqualifies it as a top 5 list. Defining a "coffee specialist" as one with an espresso machine is just wrong - consider Blue Bottle's much vaunted drip and siphon systems. Also, people seem to like Ritual, but I don't get it. I've yet to have a cup of drip or espresso or whatever type that didn't go nasty and sour on me. Something isn't right there. I'd have marked a lot more off for crappy cooler-than-thou attitudes. Friendliness is part of ambiance. 

Sarcastic Traveler
Sarcastic Traveler

Great list. I would add to it Philz coffee. The cup by cup brewing felt like a gimmick at first. However, the folks there are so nice and really seem to enjoy what they are doing that I took a step back and realized they really rock it on the coffee. Especially the mint ones. Yum. 

Gourmet Coffee
Gourmet Coffee

I think everyone has there preference in coffee. I love the skit they have on youtube about the local sf coffee wars. I think that everyone has there preference but the important thing is to get out and to try them all. At least with this list you can get a good idea of what there is out there.

guest
guest

You might want to consult a doctor about your honey-to-prevent-diabetes theory, because quite simply, it's wrong.

Honey doesn't belong in coffee, nor does Splenda, etc. That's why 4B doesn't have it.

salsaman
salsaman

Agreed, while Trieste is one of my favorite places anywhere to sit and sip a cup with old or new friends, the coffee unfortunately is not made inconsistently, a shame since their beans and roasts are very good.  As for Ritual, they always come off as too-cool self righteous ****s, taking great beans and roasting them to unattractive, undrinkable conclusions.

neddludd
neddludd

exactly. my experience at 4B has never been anything but pleasant. When the single origin bar up front is open I grab the chance to expand my coffee experience, and even there I have found that the baristas do not try to impress with their superior knowledge. They are very forthcoming with lots of info when asked. Trieste was the place when fine dining meant Ernie’s and exotic coffee was burnt beans from Graffeo. We have moved on, they have not kept up.

Dub
Dub

He didn't leave Philz off because they don't have espresso. He left them off because they make terrible coffee.

Lance Walker
Lance Walker

Sorry Sarcastic Traveler, I know how popular Philz is (and so is Starbucks for that matter) and both for the same reason: Sugar!  I'll probably get flamed for this, but my belief is that a coffee shop should NOT have to rely on sugar to sell its product and Philz does just that.  They also rely on cutesy marketing with their scores of coffee blends making it impossible to focus on quality.  Just for shits and giggles I bought a couple of different whole bean blends and brewed them up at home with my Harrio and as I suspected, the coffee was far from 1st tier grade.  Strip it of its brown sugar and heavy whipping cream, and cardamon and sweet fresh mint, and you are left with an inferior coffee, sad, to say.  If, (in my opinion) you can't drink and enjoy a coffee black which is freshly roasted, freshly ground, and brewed with a non automatic method (save for the possible exception of espresso) then you are not drinking quality coffee.  Call me elitist, call me a coffee snob (guilty on that last at least) but so be it.  Philz simply is not in the same category as a Four Barrel or a Ritual Roaster or a Blue Bottle<period>  All that being said, mine is but one opinion and of course you should drink what you like and if you genuinely enjoy it then more power to you.</period>

EATME
EATME

 just wanted to say, Philz did have it's day, remember when it was a real store that sold food and coffee.

EATME
EATME

 your right man.....

Charlie
Charlie

Philz should be investigated for misrepresenting their products.  I went to the Philz on Van Ness a couple of months ago to check out what the hype was about.  I asked about the Turkish coffee that was listed on their sign outside.  It turns out that it isn't actually a proper Turkish coffee drink prepared in the little pot, but rather it just refers to one of their numerous coffee bean varieties containing beans sourced from Turkey.  WTF?  This isn't the standard accepted definition of a Turkish coffee.  This should have been my first clue that this place is no good.  I then proceeded to order an espresso, which was quite obviously clearly listed as an espresso on their menu.  A straight espresso shot is always a good test of a coffee shop since you can't hide bad coffee in lots of milk and sugar.  It turns out that their definition of an "espresso" is simply a small pour over coffee brewed strongly and then poured back and forth from one cup into another from a height to make the coffee froth a bit in order to poorly imitate the proper crema on an espresso.  This is absolutely not an espresso (and not even a good approximation of one) by anyone's definition and should not be sold as espresso.  It turns out that they don't even have an espresso machine in the place.  You can't make espresso without extracting water under pressure through the coffee -- this requires anything from a simple stove top moka pot to a fancy espresso machine.  That was the first and last time I will ever set foot inside a Philz.  Any time I hear someone say how great Philz is, I know it's just the caffeine talking.

Charlie
Charlie

I did read the menu.  They clearly list an espresso on the menu.  Listing an espresso on your menu but then serving a small pour over coffee in its place because you don't want to invest in an espresso machine is a total bait and switch move.  If you don't want to serve espresso drinks, that is fine, but then don't list espresso on your menu.  Don't try to pass off something that is clearly not an espresso as an espresso just for the business.  You must be a Philz employee or a used car salesman if you think this type of bait and switch behavior is OK.  And if you are confused about what an espresso is, might I suggest reading up on it on your vaunted Wikipedia.  While you are there, also look up what a Turkish coffee is, and you will learn that the generally accepted definition of it is a very specific type of coffee drink, *not* simply beans supposedly sourced from Turkey mixed with with some spices.  The fact that Turkish coffee was advertised on a sign outside the cafe and the apologetic tone in which the barista explained to me that it is not actually a Turkish coffee drink but just one of their numerous coffee blends suggests that this is simply another bait and switch move to lure customers in who might not know any better.

Also, I don't know the specific views of Mr. Freeman on espresso machines, but judging by the fact that all of his Blue Bottle locations have them and that some of them even have multiple espresso machines (including some vintage one-of-a-kind and very high end machines), they are an integral part of his business.  Sure, you can run a cafe without an espresso machine and limit you products to pour over and drip coffee.  But have the basic ethical sense not to misrepresent you products and try and pull a bait and switch on your customers because most of them might not know any better.

Tired of whiners
Tired of whiners

Give me a break, you inflexible snob. The fact that Phil chooses not to invest in espresso machines absolutely does not compromise legitimacy in any way. He makes coffee from coffee beans, doesn't he? Do you think that all good coffee since the beginning of time has been made with espresso machines? Jesus, you really need to read more. Try Wikipedia.

Also, the Turks don't have a copyright on the name 'Turkish,' as far as I know. Why didn't you read the menu if you were confused about what you were getting?Have you ever bought beans from Philz and made your own espresso at home? I have. He makes great blends and we appreciate drip style made there as well as the espresso drinks we make at home with our Gaggia. Anyway, nothing gets my goat more than douchebags getting on the internets and slamming places for not being 'authentic.' You have no clue what you're talking about. Did you even know you can get them to hold the sugar, or the cream? You can control the process. Or just get coffee somewhere else if you think 'real' coffee is served out of espresso machines. But you might want to talk to the owner of Blue Bottle and see what he thinks about that misguided point of view.

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